Antibacterial soap may do more harm than good
That antibacterial soap you keep around the bathroom — and the kitchen and workplace, for that matter — probably isn't doing you much good.
It may even be self-defeating.
Public concerns about germs, everything from E.coli O157:H7 found in undercooked red meat to flesh-eating bacteria, have driven more and more people to turn to antibacterial soaps and similar products to rid themselves and their home environments of these pathogens.
Industry has been more than happy to indulge this trend: More than two-thirds of liquid soaps sold in the United States contain bacterial agents — a $16-billion-a-year enterprise.
Even so, many health experts fear mania for antibacterial cleanliness not only is futile but may be contributing to a new breed of chemically-resistant super bugs.
Besides, they say, it's not even the antibacterial property of the soap that cleans your hands.
"It's the soap's surfactant property — the loosening of dirt, grime and other substances off the skin's surface and washing it away — that actually ensures clean hands," said Dr. Jean Weese, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System food scientist and Auburn University associate professor of food science.
Because this works so well, Weese said, there really is no need for antibacterial soaps in the first place. Indeed, for the antibacterial properties to work, soap would have to stay in contact with the skin for a very long time — much longer than most people would tolerate, she said.
"If bacterial soaps are used like lotions — applied onto skin and left there without washing it off — yes, that's somewhat effective, at least against bacteria. The problem is that most soap isn't made that way," she said. "Most people typically apply it for less than 20 seconds and wash it away."
Weese's views are supported by a recent study conducted among 238 Manhattan families. In the carefully designed study, the families used only antibacterial cleaners for roughly a year. Researchers found that they were just as likely to get sick as often as those who used standard cleaners.
Besides, Weese said, antibacterial soaps, aren't even effective against the things that most often make us sick: viruses.
It is a fact borne out in the findings of the Manhattan study. Even in cases where sicknesses were traced back to bacteria, the antibacterial soap didn't provide any added measure of protection, the study revealed.
Even worse, some fear the widespread use of these soaps and other cleaners may be contributing to the evolution of chemically-resistant superbugs — a theory that has been supported by a closer study of many common bacteria within the last few decades, Weese said.
"The old saying, 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger,' certainly applies to the world of bacteria," she said.
"Bacteria, much like other organisms, change in response to stresses in their environment. One of these stresses could be exposure to antipathogenic substances such as soap."
Antibiotic resistant-bacteria, for example, are a growing concern in the medical community — a problem no longer confined only to hospitals.
Since the 1970s, doctors have routinely treated common staph infections with penicillin-type drugs — drugs that in recent years appear to have become far less effective. In some extreme cases, doctors have had to treat these types of infections even in young, otherwise healthy people with drugs previously reserved only for the desperately ill.
While this particular problem has been traced to an over-reliance on antibiotics, Weese said it underscores why any type of antibacterial product should be used responsibly.
"The bottom line is to wash your hands with old-fashioned soap, even though it's becoming increasingly harder to find products without the antibacterial solutions," she said. "Even if it's not causing super germs, it's still a waste of money. In fact, it's similar to taking lots of water-soluble vitamins. It's just being washed down the drain and not doing you any good."
Source: Dr. Jean Weese, Alabama Cooperative Extension System Food Scientist and Auburn University Associate Professor of Nutrition and Food Science.